For Dane

Date :

May 12, 2015

For Dane

In 2011, Dane Westby crashed on the closing lap of the Daytona 200, on the fastest part of the track. He was in a pack of five racers fighting for an advantage to take the win, as they wheel-to-wheel approached the checkered flag. Another rider elbowed his front brake lever, locking up Westby’s front wheel and throwing him to the pavement. After his crash, Westby got up and walked away, though a bit burned and abraded from sliding over 100 yards on dry pavement.

I chatted with Westby shortly after he escaped from his medical check-up in the track emergency room, less than an hour after his crash. I welcomed him into the 150-mph-plus crash club. We shared our impressions of skidding on our backs at crazy speeds. We had a good laugh.

Two months ago, Westby had an inexplicable streetbike accident at moderately low speeds, while riding across town in his home of Tulsa, Oklahoma. But he didn’t slide; he suffered immediate fatal impact with things. On March 23, 2015, there wasn’t anyone to laugh with, and there was nothing to laugh about.

Those in the motorcycle roadracing community, like those involved in any high-risk sport, have a different perception of life from people who like to keep things “safe.” For us, crashing, breaking bones, a bit of pain, are normal affairs. And when the worst happens on a racetrack, there’s a healthy shared sadness in the paddock. But no matter how deeply that sadness might be felt, there’s no shock; it’s just too obvious that sitting on a low-flying rocket at triple-digit speeds might at times lead to unhappy results.

Yet… Yet, even within lives of risk, where the consequences of danger are understood, there can still be surprising, inexplicable, senseless tragedy. There can be shocks for which no one was prepared.

Dane Westby was one of the most talented road racers in America. For all the risks he’s taken, his death just made no sense. As far as is known today, it was a one-vehicle accident. There were no known witnesses.

Tryg Westby, Dane’s father, said, “I don’t know what happened. It could have been a dog ran in front of him. I wish I could know. But I know that wouldn’t make any difference. It could have been someone’s burgers fell over and they reached for them. So that’s why I have to tell everyone, for a pro like that to be taken out by an inattentive driver…

“This crying isn’t something I’m used to. You can’t cry in business. In business if there’s a problem, I find a solution. I fix it. But there’s no solution for this; I can’t fix this.”

Westby’s mother and father, his sister Scarlett, and the rest of his family, have been left to grieve under this cloud. So has his girlfriend, fellow racer Patricia Fernandez, and all who knew, loved, or admired him. For all likelihood, no one will ever know how such a talented rider met such an end. It just makes no sense…

Dane Westby’s team, Yamalube Westby Racing, is owned by his father Tryg. Before Westby died, he, his father and the team were ready to contest for the 2015 MotoAmerica Superstock 1000 championship. Westby had earned a step on the podium in both of his races at the final AMA event last season at New Jersey Motorsports Park, with a win and third-place finish, rounding out a difficult season for third in the championship. Westby had set the fastest lap in the class on his new Yamaha YZF-R1M during testing at Circuit of the Americas (COTA), just a month before the start of the 2015 racing season. Westby, and the team, were at the top of their game.

“He had been riding R6s,” Tryg said. “He said he and this bike and I will be buddies. He was immediately loving the bike. It’s just a great big R6 with a lot of power. Dane was extremely impressed with it.”

And then…

It was barely a couple of weeks before the season was to start, and everything was in place for the team, except for a sudden, huge, empty hole right through the middle of it all. And it wasn’t just a team owner who had to make choices; it was a team owner who was the father of who had been the team’s only rider.

Just for the rest of us, I could fill these pages with details about whom Westby was as a person, as a racer of uncommon thoughtfulness, as an individual who touched so many so deeply. Westby made everyone who met him feel like a friend. It could then seem, for those outside his inner circle, that being a friend of his wasn’t of any consequence. It was, though, always of consequence. Westby made everyone who engaged with him feel special; there’s nothing wrong with lots and lots of people feeling special.

“It took a lot of bravery for me to be here. I just wanted to go hide in a hole. Pull the cover over the top, never see anyone again,” said Tryg about trying to figure out what to do. “It was a real hard decision. I had all the equipment. Everything was in place. All of these guys had jobs. I didn’t want to run them off. As far as I was concerned, I had the best team in the pits. So I wasn’t going to let it go. I thought, let’s see who we can find to honor Dane.”

Racer Geoff May was hired on a one-race agreement, for the season-opening round at COTA. Just a couple of weeks earlier, May had set the pole position for the Daytona 200, and earned a third-place finish in the race. But it didn’t work out. Tryg explained: “First I found Geoff. I thought he’d be good to try on the bike. He’s a very good man, but he didn’t like how it was set up. The bike and him just didn’t get along.”

After qualifying 12th in the combined Superbike/Superstock 1000 qualifying, May earned finishes of seventh and fourth in the two Superstock 1000 races at COTA.

By chance, Josh Day was attending the COTA event as a spectator. He’s a highly experienced rider who’d suddenly found himself without a seat in Europe, where he’d been racing for the last four years. In his first year over there, he’d finished second in the World 600 Superstock championship.

Day said, “I was hoping to be in the World Superstock 1000 championship, but funding fell through at the last minute. So I decided to be at COTA just so everyone could see me. I think they all expected I’d be riding in Europe again this year. I’d found someone to help me get a bike to race here, and that’s what I was going to do starting at the next race at Road Atlanta.”

Yamalube Westby Racing’s Team Manager, Chuck Giacchetto, said, “I saw Josh at COTA. He had a bike to prepare. He was going racing. After we saw how things were going, Pops [Tryg] said to me that we have to do this my way or we can’t do it. I agreed and asked him what he wanted. He said he wanted Josh Day. So I grabbed Josh and said, ‘Lets make sure we talk.’”

What Tryg said about Day goes deep. “I’ve known him for years. In the old days, he and Dane would battle it out at Grattan and other tracks, racing in WERA. He’d beat Dane, Dane’d beat him; it was a close race always. I saw him at COTA wandering around and I was wondering, ‘What’s he doing here?” And I thought I’d like to have him ride the motorcycle.

“I thought if we give a good rider a good motorcycle, I thought it’d be great to see how well he could do. Also, a lot of people in the paddock who I trust had a lot of good things to say about Josh. Josh Hayes, and others, they told me Josh would be good to give a ride to. I’d already made my mind up that I was going to do that, but it was good to hear that I wasn’t a dumbass. It showed that I was doing the right thing.”

Giacchetto added: “Pops told me to call Josh Hayes. I told Josh, I’m going to throw a curve ball at you: What about Josh Day? As Josh agreed, none of the reasons he didn’t have a ride were typical. It wasn’t his fault. And Josh believes there’s a lot of quality in Day, and he wasn’t just thinking about performance, he was thinkin about the team and me, about character. He said there’s a lot of Dane in him, and he didn’t mean that to be disrespectful.

“The biggest thing is how he interacts with Tryg. It’s big. It’s pretty unique. Neither one are trying; there’s no acting. It’s just weird. They’re shaking hands all of the time, hugging. Tryg said that Josh is like an old shoe. He was the only guy he thought could beat Dane in WERA. He thought it was a waste if they didn’t put Josh on the bike. As a person, forget about as a rider.”

A deal was struck for Josh to be on Dane’s bikes at the next event, at Road Atlanta, less than a week away. As the race approached, the team told Day—repeatedly—that there’s no pressure, and that he just needs to have fun and do what he’s comfortable doing.

No pressure?

Well, sure, that’s the only attitude to have. Maybe from the team there really was no pressure, but it was heavy in the air. And just to add to the weight, it was raining.

With an inexplicable coolness, Day started the weekend by setting pole position in the Superstock 1000 class, which is gridded by overall times and run in conjunction with the Superbike class. His speed had earned him a fourth-place starting position on the grid, on the same row with Jake Gagne, his toughest Superstock 1000 competitor.

Said Tryg: “Josh jumped on the bike and they were best friends right off. He only started riding the bike here this weekend. That’s how I know Dane’s involved. That’s what Dane would do; he’d get right on the bike and immediately go as fast as he could go, regardless of conditions.

“I thought, here we go, here’s someone like Dane, a guy who doesn’t mind passing in weird places. Doing what he did when he was a kid, making some moves I hadn’t seen before. So I knew he could do well.

“It seems like Dane put this altogether; it was too easy. We found the right rider so quickly. He’s a good match with the team. The team really likes him. He communicates good with Eric Knight, our suspension guy, with Ed, Nate, Chuck, with me, it’s like a big family. He hugs me like I’m his dad or something. I love that. That’s the way it has to be. To be a good race team there has to be a lot of ‘family’ in this, no ego.”

Though there were breaks between showers, the first of the weekend’s two Superstock 1000 races was run in the rain. At times, it was serious rain. Day launched well, on both starts due to a first-lap red flag, and ran an aggressively fast pace, hounding the few leading Superbikes. He seemed, maybe, almost too fast, though that wasn’t the view from inside his helmet. Gagne was pushing hard behind Day and within a few laps he found his way past. But Gagne was unable to pull away. Any podium finish by Day would greatly lift the spirits of the team, justify their efforts, be a big step on the road of grieving. But, sure, a win should carry them yet further. No pressure.

Then, on lap six, Gagne crashed, which isn’t something he does very often. Day was again leading his class, and more Superbikes were behind him than in front of him, but he didn’t slow. Although Day’s pace didn’t allow relief for those cheering for him, a seasoned racer knows that slowing destroys rhythm. Still, it seemed as though Day was pushing too hard, and maybe actually thinking about passing a Superbike. There’s a big difference, though, between watching a rider, and being that rider. Even a winning racer once told me that he never watched races in the hours before his, because it only made him nervous and doubtful.

Despite the conditions—all of the conditions—Day crossed the finish line first in class and fourth overall, bringing the Yamhalube Westby Racing family a much needed win. Day won with a 12-second lead over second place. He knew what he needed to do, he knew how to do it, he felt no pressure.

This was far from a scripted gimme. All racers in MotoAmerica need to do their best possible; these aren’t wealthy teams who can give away a win for the benefit of a happy narrative. And not just for himself or his own team, but for Westby, Gagne needed to make sure that Day had to work for it with every effort. Gagne passed Day in hopes of winning the race. Gagne fell due to making a rare error. Day knew that, to win, he’d have to earn it. The team’s results from the weekend prior had proved this.

After the race, Tryg said, “I gave him a big hug and he told me that Dane was with him the whole time. He said, ‘He told me what to do. That’s how I was able to ride in the rain.’ That was a nice thing for him to say to me. He’s a good kid.

“Watching Josh ride that thing in the rain, that was really good for me. I know that Dane was helping, He’s the one making it rain this weekend. ‘Try this guys, I want to make it challenging for you. I know you go good in the dry, try it wet this weekend. We used to worry about rain but then Dane started kicking everyone’s ass in the rain. Then I wanted it to rain, which is so funny for a team owner. I wanted it to rain like crazy.

“The bike we won on today was the number-eight bike. It’s the eighth bike off the assembly line. It’s the one we had at the funeral. We fired it up in the church. It was something that had never been done. All of a sudden this beam of sunlight came right in on it. I mean, right on it. Everyone parted like the red sea, and the sunbeam shined right through onto that motorcycle. Dane’s in that bike.”

“This race win was a big deal,” Giacchetto said after the race. “Jake Gagne is the guy to beat. If you can beat him, you’ve done something. He’s the benchmark.

“Our team is composed of a brotherhood. It’s not even necessarily the talent level because the group makes it rise. It’s a really good situation here. It’s a very home-like situation. It’s really thrown us all for a loop. We don’t feel like we’re working for a rider; he’s one of the guys.”

The view from the hot seat? Day said, “It’s kind of crazy, but before the race I was the least nervous I’ve ever been. They told me there’s no pressure. Maybe it’s because they’d been drilling it into my head that there are no expectations, just go out there and have fun. I told them before the race that it’d be a race of attrition.

“I know Dane was always great in the rain, so I asked him to help me before I went out there. He was definitely there with us today. I was going to hang out behind Jake, to see what happens. But he crashed not long after he’d passed me. After that I just had to bring it home, but I think I could have stayed closer to the superbike guys.”

Some may think it odd that taking giant risks might be a good way to help in grieving for a low risk that ended so badly and sadly. I’m not going to try to explain that. The risk continues; Day crashed out of the weekend’s second Superstock 1000 race, uninjured. The team will be going forward; Day has signed on for the rest of the season. Be there. The Virginia International Raceway MotoAmerica event is less than a week away.

Tryg said, “Being here with all of my friends, and seeing everyone trying so hard, and watching Josh do so well, and him being so happy for the ride, it took me back to the old days, to the WERA days. A guy wanted a chance, we gave him a chance, and he did so well. Dane always felt like a just a regular person, even when winning races. So he’d tell others, ‘You can do it.’”